Inequality and Mobility: An Interview With Timothy Smeeding

Rohan Mascarenhas, Russell Sage Foundation
June 1, 2012

economic-mobilityTimothy Smeeding is the Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs and Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty. He co-edited two RSF volumes on intergenerational mobility: Persistence, Privilege and Parenting and From Parents to Children.

Q: Let me start with a broad question that is currently animating much debate: How rigorous is the evidence on the relationship between inequality and mobility? Would it be fair to say that if a society has higher inequality, it will also generally find that it is harder for its citizens to climb the income ladder?

A: The evidence that inequality and mobility are negatively correlated is strong and growing. We no longer need to wait until a child reaches adulthood to learn that the children of higher status parents, be it according to parental education, income, wealth or all of these, will have a much better chance of future life success than those children who are not so lucky.

Q: From Parents to Children looks at the transmission of advantage in ten advanced countries. How strong is the link between parental education and children’s outcomes in the United States compared to the rest? Is equal opportunity – often hailed as a quintessentially American concept – most available in the U.S.?

A: Ironically, the evidence shows that children in the USA—where inequality is the highest—have the least equal opportunities of all the countries studied in multiple dimensions. The mobility gradients across parental education for cognitive, behavioral and job-related outcomes are the steepest of the countries studied.

Q: One argument often made during debates over inequality is that differences in outcomes may merely reflect differences in ability or effort. But From Parents to Children finds disturbing disparities among children from richer and poorer families even before they reach school. How important are these early differences in the course of a child’s life?

A: Early differences are increasingly important. With many child outcomes we observe—be it early childhood health, pre-kindergarten ability, behavior—there is already a steep gradient benefiting the children of the most able adults, and that gradient persists or grows, but never lessens as the child moves to adulthood. Early action on quality preschool and parenting behaviors cam make a big difference to move toward a more level playing field.

The problem is that we need public as well as private investments in young children and their parents to leaven the playing field. Right now, those investments are falling, not rising.

Q: There’s a startling line in your review of the evidence of the volume: "[The] net effect of education systems is not to reduce the relationship between parental socioeconomic status (SES) and child achievement." Since most consider education one of the major mechanisms driving equal opportunity, what does this suggest to you – that education systems aren’t working, or that early childhood disparities, once apparent, cannot be easily offset? Or is there something else going on?

A: All of these are going on. Better education is a widely accepted vehicle for ensuring more equal adult outcomes, but so far the smartest parents do the best job of maximizing opportunities for their children to be successful. There is ample evidence in our volumes that early childhood education and some parenting programs—for young first-time parents, for example—can reduce the parental SES gradient. The problem is that we need public as well as private investments in young children and their parents to leaven the playing field. Right now, those investments are falling, not rising.

Q: What are the next steps for research and practice in this area? What are some of the findings in From Parents to Children scholars should build on or further analyzed or used to pcuh for better policies to equalize opportunity?

A: The next steps are to strengthen the evidence on how policy can affect parent-child gradients and to convince policymakers to make these investments. Populations are changing and becoming more diverse, marriage rates are falling and too many young parents cannot make the investments that their children need because of family or income stability. We can wait for more research, but in the meantime we need to begin to invest before we lose another generation.


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